Evaluating the Free Will Response to Evil


Theists who use the free will response to the problem of evil argue that the existence of moral and natural suffering is unsurprising if God exists. God, they claim, has good reason to create free creatures who play a significant role in shaping their own lives and the lives of others – for good or for ill. Moreover, free will depends on a system of natural laws that enable predictions of the outcomes of one’s behavior; therefore, the suffering that issues from living in such a system becomes inevitable. To sum up, we should not be surprised to find moral and natural suffering in a world created by God.

The Free Will Response: God has good reason to create free creatures who play a significant role in shaping their own lives and the lives of others – for good or for ill.

That’s a summary of the free will response from my previous post. But does this response have any weaknesses? Yes it does. Today I will consider five objections that (if successful) seriously limit the explanatory power and scope of this explanation of evil. As I work through these five, I will also list possible rejoinders which theists could use.

Objection 1: Free will can exist without its misuse

This objection faults the Free Will Theodicy for failing to meet the demands of justice. Justice requires that God allow undeserved suffering only if allowing it (or some other evil equally bad or worse) is the only way to secure an outweighing good. But, so the objection goes, God could have created free agents who do not commit moral evils. God could have created only those creatures whom he knew would always choose good. If God is all-knowing, then he knows which creatures would freely sin and which creatures would not. Free will does involve the possibility of sin, but perhaps some creatures would never realize that possibility. If so, God would know who they are. So why didn’t God simply make those creatures and avoid creating the one’s that would choose to sin? God could do this if he knows what we would do in advance.

Response 1a: Perhaps there are no free creatures who would always choose good.

Perhaps any creature endowed with freedom will decide to choose evil at some point and, if so, none of the worlds feasible for God to create contain free creatures who never do evil. [1]

Response 1b: There may be very few people who never misuse their freedom.

So had God made a world containing only those types of people, it would be horribly unpopulated, say, containing only five people. Perhaps God prefers a world containing more people capable of relating to him even if it means allowing some of them to do wrong.

Conclusion 1

Personally, I find it very unlikely that many creatures with significant freedom living together would never go wrong. Plus, such a world would be deficient in other respects (and thus not preferable) because persons would have little or no opportunity to develop virtues like heroism, courage, and compassion in the face of moral threats. So I do not find this first objection convincing.

Objection 2: Horrendous Evil

Other critics claim that some moral evils are too costly to be outweighed by the goods of free will. Just think of the Holocaust. Was preserving the freedom of the S.S. officers worth the systematic slaughter of six million Jews? That seems a bit extreme. The goods of free will might justify allowing some lower grade evils, but examples like the holocaust are too horrendous to be allowed for that purpose. So it seems that for God to be justified in allowing horrendous evil, goods greater than free will must be at stake.[2]

Objection 3: Where is the Compensation?

Consider horrendous evils like child torture. Let us suppose that God allows children to suffer in this way because doing so is the only way to preserve the freedom of their torturers. Let us also suppose that the goods of preserving free will sufficiently outweigh the evils inflicted on these children (I find that idea implausible, but let’s assume it for the sake of argument). Have we thereby found an ethically satisfying explanation of God’s allowance of child torture? Of course not. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the child must be compensated for the wrong. If God is perfectly just, then it’s not enough for Him to simply secure outweighing goods while leaving the child’s suffering uncompensated. But how might God do this?

Response 3

Perhaps the child is compensated during its short life by the free actions of other benevolent people who showed it love and care. This option is possible, but presumably the love and care it received while alive did not outweigh the horrendous sufferings it endured.

Conclusion 3

As it stands, the free will response lacks the conceptual resources to explain how child torture is compensated. Of course, if a perfectly just God exists and allows such evils to occur, then he compensates them entirely, but it is unclear to us how this works. Perhaps God ensures that these children enjoy a blessed existence in the afterlife that far outweighs their earthly suffering. But even if that’s true, the free will explanation becomes less simple (and therefore less probable) because it now depends on the truth of additional premises about the reality of post-mortem bliss. Thus, to avoid the charge of tacking on extra premises in an ad hoc way to save the free will hypothesis, the theist will need to show that an afterlife is quite probable on theism, or on other grounds which are friendly to theism.

Objection 4: Different Natural Laws

God could have made a world governed by different natural laws which produce less suffering. Such a world would have been preferable to our own, and so God should have created it instead. Theists have typically responded to the “different natural laws” objection in two ways:

Response 4a: Insufficient Knowledge

We have no idea which alternative natural laws God could have created, and even if we did, we wouldn’t have sufficient knowledge of their effects to gauge whether (on balance) they result in worlds with less suffering than our own. We don’t have enough information to know if a world created with different laws would be better in that way. We can say that all things being equal a world with less natural evil than our own would be a better world, but we have no idea whether things remain equal when natural laws have been tampered with. We just have no idea how the overall balance of goods in a world would be positively or negatively affected if natural laws were altered.

An incredible amount of fine-tuning has to occur before a world is hospitable to life, and minor adjustments in the values for those laws prove disastrous.

Response 4b: The Anthropic Principle

Also, astrophysicists tell us that very few universes are capable of sustaining life because the values for the constants and variables in their natural laws have to be delicately balanced. Most universes are not life-permitting because they do not fall within the narrow range of physical constants necessary for the existence of creatures like us. An incredible amount of fine-tuning has to occur before a world is hospitable to life, and minor adjustments in the values for those laws prove disastrous. If very few life-permitting universes were available for God to create, then for all we know, some finely-tuned universe(s) like our own had to be created, even if they are somewhat different from ours. And with so few options at God’s disposal, it becomes less likely that natural laws with values different from our own would have been an improvement, viz. resulted in less human and animal suffering. ***Note: this response might conflict with 4(a). ***

Objection 5: Selective, Undetectable Intervention

Even if a universe with natural laws somewhat like our own is necessary for the existence of free, morally responsible creatures like us, God can still reduce the amount of natural evil without adverse consequences. Some divine intervention in the natural order may in fact reduce physical evils without diminishing our ability (or the ability of nonhuman animals) to predict the immediate outcomes of our actions.

For example, God may intervene selectively and undetectably to prevent isolated cases of animal suffering, plagues, and cancer, without making life unpredictable. These interventions would be exceptions to the regular operation of physical laws but would not jeopardize their general character. Defenders of the Free Will response are right to argue that cause and effect relationships would not be predictable if God systematically intervened to prevent natural evil, but their argument has a weakness: the predicable character of the system would remain intact if God selectively intervened in undetectable ways to reduce natural evil.[3]  ***Note: How would we know that God is not already doing this?


[1] Such persons suffer from, what Plantinga calls, “transworld depravity.” While there are possible worlds in which such persons always do good, it is a matter of contingent fact that no actual world in which they exist is one where they always do good. Plantinga’s concept of transworld depravity depends on the theory of “middle knowledge” which implies that God knows all counterfactual truths about what free creatures would do in any circumstance and that God only has the power to actualize a world consistent with that knowledge. Suppose God knew that if he created you in circumstance C, you would choose to do X. Given the truth of that proposition, God cannot create a world with those same circumstances and have you chose non-X, since that would violate your freedom. There is a possible world in which you do non-X, but given what you would actually choose, God cannot create that world.

[2] A variant of the objection from horrendous evil comes from Ivan in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel The Brothers of Karamazov. Ivan blames God for giving us free will because human beings are too feeble and weak to bear the burden of that “gift.” Human freedom is not just any kind of freedom – it is morally significant freedom. It involves (among other things) responsibility for the well-being others; facing complex moral circumstances that hold out devastating consequences for mistakes in judgment; and the capacity to inflict unfathomable evil on others. Ivan’s underlying assumption is that a just God would not endow creatures with responsibilities they cannot be expected to fulfill.

[3] In light of this objection, Daniel Howard-Snyder admits, “My sense is that we have no idea how God would be justified in permitting the isolated suffering of non-human animals at nature’s hand.” See his “God, Evil, and Suffering.” (2001), p.96.

6 thoughts on “Evaluating the Free Will Response to Evil”

  1. If you could give immortality and a whole universe to a group of people, by what means would you allow them to earn It?
    You are overlooking several things.
    A. Its this way because God knows the end before he even started.
    B. Perspective requires that we see both good and evil…or as the shining one said in the garden ‘ knowing good and evil’ knowing is not just knowledge but also experience.
    C. How can we reject evil if we don’t know it.
    D. Mortal Death is not evil, its natural.
    E. Your senses are not defined except by you, what you see as suffering may not be universal. ( seriously some people consider 98degrees to be suffering ).

    1. Your comment about knowing good and evil got my attention. My brief reading on tree symbolism and sacred space in the Ancient Near East indicates a different interpretation from the one you suggested: that is, eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents a refusal to accept true wisdom as having its source in God. So instead, the first humans sought wisdom on their own terms.

      Your remark about experiential knowledge seems to have been anticipated at least as early as Soren Kierkegaard. He thought that God originally created human selves in an unfixed/malleable state so that they could choose whom to become via a process of character development and testing. Some recent work in the ethics of theodicy takes a similar approach (vis-a-vis moral principles from medical ethics) by arguing that human character is initially unfixed/unsettled so that (by acquaintance with good and evil) we can consent through a lifetime of choices to be endowed, by God, with an immutably good nature in heaven.

      Just some random thoughts. Thanks for your comment!

  2. I have written papers addressing objections 2 and 3 https://p2c.com/sites/default/files/documents/blogs/kirk/complexity-and-evil.pdf On the face of it, we feel that it is a reasonably acceptable inference that no good at all justifies God in permitting certain horrendous evils, or certain terrible things to happen to children. I have shown, however, that, assuming free will, the consequential complexity of history makes it impossible to defend that inference.

    1. Thanks Kirk. I believe I read your article on historical complexity some 10 years ago, but I appreciate your kind reminder. In terms of responding to the evidential problem, I think that the “complexity” route is where the conversation needs to go, in order to challenge Rowe’s inference to gratuitous evil from the appearance of it. I would still argue (in line with Steve Wykstra) that the *appearance* of gratuitous evil is still more expected on naturalism than theism (even if the appearance is only weakly indicative of actual gratuity), but then the evidential argument is much less powerful than originally anticipated.

      In a nutshell, while apparently gratuitous suffering is modest evidence for naturalism (for reasons already stated), this evidence is insufficient (given complexity considerations), and we must consider the whole gamut of evidence for and against theism when weighing the data of evil. Those are just some thoughts.

  3. Hey Thomas I enjoyed your posts on the FWR to the Problem of Evil.
    I am a bit torn on the FRW. Here are some (inchoate) reasons why. Caveat: I typed these up as notes so please forgive any grammatical errors,
    Sincerely Gregg

    First, there is a question to how the FRW applies to God. Free will philosophers often talk of the necessity of free will in order for their to be authentic love between persons. If a person were hardwired to love, and did not have the ability to not love, then that love is not authentic. However, this does not seem to be the case with God. As Christians we believe that God exists in a eternal loving relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Moreover, none of these three persons in the Trinity could not love the others. In other words, they do not have the ability to not to love. It is not a choice they could actualize. Yet this Triune love is a authentic, perhaps even the most authentic love possible.

    Let us look at the FRW in relation to God from another angle. Tim Keller points out that God is describe in the Bible as sovereign and free (Keller uses Psalm 115:3 to back up this claim). Yet the Bible also describes God as not being able to do evil (TItus 1:2) or even be tempted by evil (James 1:13). But if God can have free will and not sin then why could not other creatures be so constituted?

    Another problem with the FWR is that of our future existence in the new heavens and new earth. The Bible describes the new heavens and new earth as a place without tears, pain, suffering and death (Rev. 21:4). The Bible as states that these things that exist in our fallen world are a result of human sin. But here is the problem: in the new heavens and new earth the reality of evil and suffering will no longer be a reality or even a possibility. The reason they will not be a possibility, I take it, is that choosing sin will not be an option. We will not have that choice either as an option or an ability. But surely in this new world we will be capable of love and morally good deeds. Indeed, isn’ t this what we long for? To love and do good without the possibility of doing otherwise?

    Moreover, you argue argue that it is difficult to envision a world a free creatures who, for the majority, do not go wrong. Yet this exactly what the Bible promises in the new heavens and new earth.

    You also state that this kind of world is deficient and thus not preferable. Why? Because in such a world persons would have little or no opportunity to develop virtues like heroism, courage or compassion. Setting aside the problem that God is compassionate even though he does not face moral threats, there is also the problem of future humans in the new heaven and new earth.

    For example, we live in a world were over the course of centuries that millions if not billions of pre-born/new born babies have died before they were capable of moral choices. On my view these infants will be in the new heavens and new earth. Moreover, I take it that in the new heavens and new earth they will develop beyond the stages of infancy into full adulthood. But if the FWR is correct then these infant will not develop into adult moral beings given that live in a world were they could never go wrong. The implication is that they are not fully loving, moral humans.

    One of the more formidable challenges to the FRW is the problem of natural evil. Natural evil is human or animal suffering caused by nature or natural causes (hurricanes, tornadoes, forrest fires, cancer cells, etc.).
    One explanation that you mention for natural evil is that it is unlikely or not possible for God to create a world without natural evil. Why would this be the case?

    The free will philosopher points to the fine tuning of the universe. Here is the truncated explanation: It seems to be the case that life conducive universes like our own are few and far between. This means that God could have created a different kind of universe but the possibilities for life conducive universes are limited. Given this the Free will philosopher states: it becomes less likely that natural laws with values different from our own world would have been an improvement, viz. resulted in less human suffering.”

    But again we run into a major theological difficulty. For the promise of our future existence is a world (i.e., a physical universe with planets, stars, earth, humans and animals) without suffering of any kind. To say that God could not create a world without natural (or moral) evil completely undermines the Biblical promise of a world without suffering and death.

    1. Hi Gregg,
      Thank you for your excellent response. It’s always nice to have someone of your calibre is reading and critiquing my work. Regarding the topic of God’s essential moral goodness, there are three replies open to the theist, as I see it:

      First, one could argue, as Bill Craig does, that God exercises libertarian free will while remaining incapable of sin, since the latter is not a necessary condition of the former. Harry Frankfurt showed something like this in his example of the mad scientist who strapped electrodes to Jim’s brain, such that, given the choice between X and Y, if Jim were about to choose Y, the mad scientists would preempt Jim’s choice by pressing a button to make Jim do X instead. As a matter of fact, Jim freely chooses X anyway, even though he could not have done otherwise. Frankfurt’s example shows that the so-called “principle of alternative possibilities” is not required for libertarianism to be true; what’s needed is for the act to be undetermined and to originate in the agent. Similarly, God is incapable of sinning because his character (analogous to the scientist’s apparatus) forbids it. Nevertheless, when he does good, he does so freely as His act was not determined by his character and it originates in Him. If this reasoning is correct, then your objection that God is not free in the sense which the FWR requires is undercut.

      Second, one could defend a metaethical theory that not all goods are conjointly realizable in any being, let alone God. Some goods can only be had by finite creatures (e.g. having needs met, being restored, and so on) and perhaps libertarian choice is among these goods; so even if ex hypothesi God’s essential goodness precludes free will, it still may be very valuable for finite creatures to have. Moreover, even if God is not free with respect to his duties (assuming he has duties, such as keeping promises), He is still free with respect to acts of supererogation if he chooses to go above and beyond what is required by the Good. On this account, while God is not (strictly speaking) worthy of praise for fulfilling his moral duties, he is still worthy of adoration for being the ground and paradigm of goodness itself. And he is praiseworthy for his supererogatory acts or grace and mercy.

      Third, the theist can argue that God’s perfect goodness does not require that he be incapable of sin, as Richard Gale holds. Our assurance of his goodness comes from his fidelity and trustworthiness of character; and while this means that God could theoretically do evil, he nevertheless always does good. That’s about as solid a guarantee of character we can have. Yes, scripture says that God “cannot sin”, but I doubt this passage was intended to convey the modally exalted claim that God does not sin in any logically possible world. Also, when it is said that God “sins” in some possible world, God does not literally sin; rather, this is just a roundabout way of saying that while God is technically capable of sin, sin is nevertheless unthinkable for God, as he always has and always will do what is good.

      Fourth, regarding your comment about eschatology, philosophers like Richard Swinburne and Albert Haig would likely deny your claim that the new heavens and the new earth (heretofore, “heaven”) is a possible world all on its own. Heaven requires some stage-setting first. That is, if heaven is a state in which God endows his chosen creatures with immutably good natures they have freely consented to, then God (by his own admission) cannot create heaven without their consent vis-à-vis a temporary process of soul-making. God could have skipped the process, no doubt, but not without sacrificing the good (or more strongly in Haig’s case, “the duty”) of obtaining informed consent. Only when God creates heaven (in part) as the culmination of a probationary soul-making process does He actualize both the good of immutably virtuous creatures and the good of their consent.

      Fifth, as for the eschatological plight of the unborn (or anyone else with unsettled character, for that matter), no one really has a definite answer that one, Gregg. Perhaps those Catholics and Wesleyan evangelicals who believe in a non-punitive duration of purgatory before heaven can make room for persons with unsettled character to confirm their desire for the Good 😉

      As for your comments about natural evil, they are well received and I will have to give them some further thought!

      Always a pleasure Gregg,

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